One Racist Act

While reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, I could not wrap my head around what was being said. Not because it was something I could not comprehend, but because I will never experience anything like the injustices faced by Coates. The book is written as a letter to his teenage son. Part cautionary tale, part memoir, part hope for the future, yet all realistically a bleak outlook. Coates’ takes his son (and the reader) on a journey through his life experiences trying to navigate life as a black man in the United States. It was 152 pages of difficulty and struggle. As I finished I realized exactly why I had so much trouble with the piece. I am white middle-class man who has had a very privileged life. I have never had to be sat down and told about issues that I would inevitably face in life, let alone have a book dedicated to those experiences. I am a dreamer, as Coates puts it, therefore I will never fully comprehend the oppression of which Coates speaks, but I can always work to get to a true point of understanding and compassion.

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Throughout the book, Coates returns to the theme of fear; fear as an inhibitor, a motivator, and as part of black identity. The conceptions of fear seemingly evolve over the course of the text and with those the reader is exposed to just how powerful fear can be in different contexts. Coates always returns to fear because he realizes that his son is afraid and that feeling may never leave. It may not always be in the forefront of thought, but fear just might always be present. Coates does not hide from this reality, he embraces the difficult conversation knowing that it may not actually provide any comfort.

He sees fear in how young men from his youth carried themselves. The clothing, fighting, music, and language that surrounded his adolescence he linked with fear. This fear is expressed through these medium as a way to exert control over lives “against all evidence and odds.” [1] Coates continually paints the picture of walking out of the front door and always having the thought of not returning in the back of one’s head. In this context fear plays the role of inhibitor, because of policies and authority figures that constantly push the subtle narrative that these young black people are somehow less, unworthy, or guilty until proven innocent.

The United States justice system is institutionally broken. Coates warns his son, “Our current politics tell you that should you fall victim to such an assault and lose your body, it somehow must be your fault.” [2] Fear is instilled through systematic racism that continually pushes the narrative of the dangerous black man. Small crimes (or for that fact, perceived crimes) are punishable by death with no trial; the trial that often follows is centered around exonerating the guilty officer. Coates continues to discuss police brutality throughout the book because of the impact the death of Michael Brown had on his son. It becomes one lens through which he can relate as his friend, Prince Jones, was also killed by the police.

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Even in some of the few instances where fear pushes Coates or those in his life to become better, to change their standing in life, the reality of society is there to destroy them. Coates concludes his book with a story of a visit to the mother of Prince Jones. A successful radiologist, who was able to send her child to private school and expected him to end up in an Ivy League school. She never regretted his decision to attend Howard, only that he was dead. [3] Prince had all the opportunities and support that would lead you to believe he was going to live a full, productive and successful life. But that reality does not exist. There is always the possibility that, as Dr. Jones said, “One racist act. It’s all it takes.” [4]

That line hit me like a ton of bricks. It is unavoidable. Racism exists in our society. Even Coates knows that no matter how hard anyone in the black community tries they cannot struggle for the conversion of the dreamers. [5] Us “dreamers” must embrace the uncomfortable reality that racism is alive and well in our society. One racist act can end a life, alter a community, destroy a family, and shake the foundation of the society in which we live. We must be better, change can happen and we need to start holding those responsible accountable. Hopefully one day fear will no longer be a daily part of black lives, but Coates is right, the outlook is bleak and that may never change.

[1] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015): 14-15.[2] Coates, 130.
[3] Coates, 141-142.
[4] Coates, 145.
[5] Coates, 151.

4 thoughts on “One Racist Act

  1. My reaction to reading this book was very similar. It is admirable that Coates is willing to describe the fear he feels as a black man in America, even when he doesn’t necessarily think it will change anything. It made me realize how much I was unaware of growing up and how white people have the responsibility to pay attention so we don’t miss what’s going on.

  2. I also felt the same way after reading this book. While I certainly knew that racism is alive and well, I had never gotten so deep of a look into what it’s like to be on the receiving end of it. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live with that fear every day. I also can’t imagine what it must be like for parents like Coates to know that their children have to live with that fear and to not be able to take it away, but instead just guide them through it.

  3. Like everyone else, this book had a tremendously powerful impact on me. I had never really thought about that basic level of fear that he describes, or the many ways it manifests itself in a culture. Nor had I thought about the fact it all comes back to the body, and the systematic power people who perceive themselves as white give themselves to destroy the black body. The impact his book had was to mess me up, make me feel really uncomfortable in an existential-crisis kind of way. But I think in a good way – the discomfort with the world and your understanding of it that Coates experienced. I think it’s part of learning.

  4. While I have read many things in regards to police brutality in the United States, I have never had it explained though the idea of fear in the way Coates explained it. I was similarly struck by this notion, and I cannot fathom going through life wondering which second will be my last. Racism is alive and well, and those who choose to ignore this fact are only projecting the consequences of it further.

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